So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport

These notes aren't yet written. I may be writing them right now, or I might have decided this book either isn't worth taking notes for or isn't right for it.

Want to be happy at work? This book lays out a path for developing the kind of career that gives occupational happiness. Spoiler: It's not about following your passion.

Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, is titled after a line from a Steve Martin interview. After being questioned on how to break into the comedy industry, he replied “be so good that they can’t ignore you.” Martin says that advice is often brushed aside because it’s not what people want to hear, but it is the key.

Newport wrote this book to respond to what he calls “the passion hypothesis”, which is a popular mindset and argument that goes like this: occupational happiness is dependent on and a result of finding work that matches a pre-existing passion you have.

In our culture, the passion hypothesis is formulated with phrases like “do what you love and money will follow” or “if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life”. The passion hypothesis argues that working on something you are already passionate about will make you happy and will make you money.

Newport stands against this idea, arguing that it isn't finding the right work that makes you occupationally happy. Instead, it is working right. In other words, there is an approach to work that can make it satisfying, and it isn’t about finding work that matches a pre-existing passion. He calls this approach “the craftsman mindset”.

He argues against the passion hypothesis on 2 main points:

  1. Passion is rare (the amount of passions that match jobs that make money are few)
  2. Passion is dangerous (it creates a mindset where momentary unhappiness makes you leave your work, never build up career capital, and never satisfied).

Instead, Newport argues that:

  1. Passion is an effect of mastery
  2. Passion isn’t what makes for occupational happiness.

Occupational happiness, Newport argues, comes from 3 traits being present in your job:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Competence
  3. Relatedness/Impact

Newport argues that jobs with these three traits are offered to people who bring very rare and valuable skills to the market. In other words, you must build career capital to attain one of these kinds of jobs.

This is where Newport's more famous book, Deep Work, links in with this book. He argues that the way to build up career capital is through a craftsman mindset. One where a person uses deliberate practice to acquire skills that make them an expert. Once an expert, you can deploy your career capital to get a job with the aspects that make it fulfilling (and pay well).

The way to attain career capital is through Deep Work.

He makes an interesting distinction regarding the kinds of career capital you can build up. He says there are essentially two kinds of markets for career capital, and if you misidentify which one you’re in, you’ll run into some problems. The two kinds are:

  1. Winner-take-all markets: There’s really only one skill that matters and that determines success. Achieving this one skill should be your focus. For example: writing scripts in Hollywood. The only hard-skill thing you need to be good at is writing scripts.
  2. Auction markets: There are many different types of career capital, and each person might generate a unique collection.

Mastery - The 5 Steps of Becoming a Craftsman:

  1. Decide what kind of capital market you are in: winner-take-all or auction
  2. Decide what type of capital you need. In a winner-take-all there is only one. In an auction, there’s more to pursue.
  3. Define “good” and set clear goals
  4. Stretch and destroy: you have to push yourself past the mental strain and stretch your brain.
  5. Be patient: Steve Martin decided to learn banjo thinking that if he started now, in 40 years, he would be pretty good.

Another important distinction he makes between “passion mindset” and “craftsman mindset”:

  • Passion mindset focuses on what value the world provides to you
  • Craftsman mindset focuses what value you provide to the world

A caveat - when Craftsmanship isn’t the solution:

  1. The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
  2. The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world.
  3. The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.

Control Your Career

To create a career/occupational lifestyle you love, Newport argues that having control is the Dream-Job Elixir. He talks about Results-Only-Work-Environments (ROWE), where people are only required to get results, and get to decide for themselves when/how they work, how much vacation they take, etc. People in ROWE’s, Newport states, enjoy their work a lot more. He backs this up with small anecdotes and some statistics.

He believes that control is a key factor in having work you like. In order to get control in your career, you have to have career capital. That’s because no one will pay you to work less, or work remotely, or have lots of vacation, or spearhead your own project/team/company, if you haven’t proven that you’ll provide enough value to make that worth it.

While seeking control, Newport identifies two main pitfalls you can fall into:

  1. Seeking control without the career capital necessary. This looks like taking a leap to start a project with no real skills, or making a big ask before having the capital to back it up.
  2. Being fought at the pass by employers, friends, family, when trying to grab control of your career/work, because you have become so valuable.

He emphasizes how these two traps are opposites and identifying if you are meeting resistance because you’re in trap #1 or trap #2 is hard. Get it wrong, and you’ll make a big mistake.

Given that dilemma, how do you evaluate if you have the career capital needed to wrestle control? (aka, how do you know if you should pursue the next thing that you want to?). If someone will pay you to do it. Will your boss keep paying you to only work 30 hour weeks? Or keep you employed if you take a 3 month leave? He calls it the law of financial viability. The rule here uses money as a proxy for value. Basically, if you are providing value, you’ll be paid for it. This, he caveats, doesn’t apply to the pursuits of hobbies.

Mission

The next aspect of work that is fulfilling that he tackles is mission. By this, he means, a singular focus of your career that helps you feel the impact you make.

The trick about mission is finding it. He has several stories of people jumping from one thing to something totally unrelated (usually because of passion), but without the career capital to make it a success. Some of those stories:

  • A successful marketing director who left her job to pursue her passion of yoga. Took a one month long yoga training course, then set up a shop. Now is on food stamps. Why? One reason is that one month of yoga training still only gets you to the bottom of the skill ladder when it comes to yoga.
  • A college student who dropped out of college to start a nonprofit that “develops her vision of well-being”. She didn’t even know what that means, and not surprisingly, failed.

To help find and secure your mission, Newport has 3 rules:

1. Mission requires capital

He explains in a roundabout way: In scientific discoveries, it’s often the case that the same discovery is made independently multiple times in the same year. For instance, in 1611, four people independently figured out the existence of sunspots. Two people came up with the battery in the same year. This happens a lot. Why? Because people make innovations in the adjacent possible. Innovations are possible when they are just beyond the cutting edge of what exists or is known. Thus, to find these innovations, you have to be on the cutting edge. While this is true in innovation, science research, etc. Newport deploys it as a way to help your career. To find the next valuable thing for yourself, you have to be on the cutting edge. To get to that point, you have to have some serious skills, aka have capital.

2. Mission requires little bets

Most people he studied didn’t start out with a grand vision from nothing. They incrementally take on little projects and make little bets that eventually cause some big break.

3. Mission requires marketing

In order to have a mission that people will care about/pay you for, you must do something that follows what Newport calls the law of remarkability: simply put, your work must make people remark on it. To really get attention, you must do something remarkable and deploy it in a network where remarking is easy.

Cal Newport spends the last 30 pages explaining how he is applying his various rules to his own work.

Brian Dawson
@btsdawson